Matric subject choices don't add up

Encouraging more students to register for maths and science should be just as important as ensuring quality pass marks.

Read time 3min 40sec

As matrics across SA sit to write the most important exams of their basic education career, government's efforts to improve performances in maths and science must strike a balance with slamming the brakes on the declining number of students registered for those exams each year.

Of the 551 656 full-time matric students writing the National Senior Certificate exams this year, 231 180 (41%) are registered for mathematics, while 171 549 (31%) students will write the physical science exam. Compare that to 2010, when 48% wrote the maths exam and 38% of pupils took science, and a seven percentage point drop is concerning.

I must, however, point out that I don't want to undermine the importance of knowledge diversity. Granted, we won't all be interested in - or excel at - particular subjects, including maths and science. Similarly, not everyone will find history as gripping as I did; and others might not be enthralled with poring over maps in geography. I get that, and think diversity of interests should be celebrated.

The point here is that, having identified mathematics, science and technology (MST) as pivotal subjects to the country's long-term developmental objectives, the responsibility to nurture a healthy pool of students cannot be ignored. (I'll also confess to my vested interest in the potential ICT skills pool which will be impacted on by the declining number of students taking mathematics and science.)

Key objectives

Basic education minister Angie Motshekga recently noted, in order for her department to meet the country's MST objectives, it must make strides in the following areas:

* Raising participation and performance by historically disadvantaged learners in senior certificate mathematics and physical science;
* Providing high-quality mathematics, science and technology education for all learners taking the first General Education and Training Certificate and Further Education and Training Certificate; and
* Increasing and enhancing human resource capacity to deliver quality mathematics, science and technology education.

The Department of Basic Education (DBE) wants to act on recommendations from a ministerial task team, and while I don't have insights into the demographic breakdown of maths and science participation among matriculants, the 7% drop overall should be enough to make it a priority.

Teach the teachers

Education pundits will almost always point to teacher training as one of the most crucial aspects to achieving a turnaround in student prospects - and rightfully so. Speaking to ITWeb recently, Wits University's visiting adjunct professor Graeme Bloch said government must identify and make good use of the country's best teachers for the benefit of a greater amount of students. All this must be done, of course, while raising the expected standards for new and existing teachers. Basically, let's celebrate the good ones while making sure we're producing even more across the board.

Education pundits will almost always point to teacher training as one of the most crucial aspects to achieving a turnaround in student prospects - and rightfully so.

The DBE's task team report seems to have taken this into account. It reads: "There is a national pool of dedicated and competent MST teachers. They must be recognised and nurtured. Their knowledge and experience must be used to the best advantage."

Just how this is done is the next big question.

As ICT veteran Adrian Schofield puts it, improving maths and science participation is not only about improving the ICT skills pool, but boosting SA's numeracy capacity. "Maths is the root of logical thinking; we all need it to approach problems in our daily lives."

In the meantime, the cycle goes on. The matric exams will soon end, followed swiftly by the marking, validation and evaluation process. And then we'll be glued to our screens as Motshekga breaks down how the class of 2014 fared.

As ever, special mention will be made of the importance of maths and science. I just hope we can work towards quality and a little more in quantity over the next few years.

See also